What is the imago dei? How are humans unique from the rest of life and made special by God? This is an important—and highly contested—topic in the history of theology. And today, it’s best approached in dialogue with science.
Science has lots to say on the topic—regarding human origins, our biological and cultural evolution, psychology, neuroscience, and more focused topics like tool use, language, cooperation, reason, symbolic behavior, religion, and more. And it now includes knowledge about the DNA we share with all of life—including the DNA of species like Neanderthals within us.
But instead of another series, let’s focus on a single proposal from Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner.
Who Are We?
In his book The Human Factor, Hefner—taking into account theology and science, particularly evolutionary biology—proposed that we are created co-creators. The idea is informed by his consideration of human agency, freedom, and our extensive creative capacity.
German theologian Hubert Meisinger summarizes Hefner’s concept well in the 2003 Encyclopedia of Science and Religion:
“Humans are created by God to be co-creators in the creation that God has purposefully brought into being. The word created thus relates to being created by God as part of the evolutionary reality (a view sometimes criticized for demeaning humans understood as imago dei). The word co-creator reflects the freedom of humans to participate in fulfilling God’s purposes (a view sometimes criticized for super-elevating humans to the same level as God). The paradigm of the created co-creator is Jesus Christ who reveals that the essential reality of humans has never been outside God.”
Hefner was on the liberal side of the theological spectrum, and his University of Chicago–trained approach may not resonate with everyone, but I urge you to consider the concept at face value.
Do we not create? Do we not exercise our agency to create art and technology and ideas? Do we not create relationships and moments of profound love and joy? Do we not also create messes that require further creativity to overcome? Clearly God has given us this capacity, and our creativity exists at levels well above that of any other (earth-bound) species.
Similarly, are we not created? Genesis 1:26 says God “created humankind in our image” (NRSV). Hefner partly interprets that verse—and the sixth day of creation—to say that our role as “co-creators” is to “birth the future that is most wholesome for the nature that has birthed us.”
Meisinger rightly notes in his brief summary that human evolution raises challenges—perhaps not insurmountable ones—for our understanding of imago dei, and that seeing ourselves as co-creators might over-inflate our ambitions. Hefner never says we are co-equal to God, but that we imperfectly bear God’s creativity.
Are we actually created co-creators? Is it what makes us unique and the imago dei within us? Perhaps. It is at least a plausible theological proposal and one that takes science seriously. That is enough for me to have added it to my theological toolkit.
- Agustin Fuentes thinks creativity is essential to our species.
- Science for Seminaries helps us get the science right on who we are.
- What are some of the ways we are unique?
- How are science and child’s play connected?
- Our creative capacity is like a muscle that can increase with use.
- Hefner revisits created co-creators 20 years after The Human Factor.
- A more academic treatment (part one, two, and three) of the idea.
- BioLogos on evolution and the imago dei.
- Christian scholars wrestled with science and human uniqueness.
My kids were raised in churches that used a Montessori-styled curriculum called Godly Play. They learned their Bible stories and were invited to wonder and bring creativity to the process.
I think the idea of “godly play” might be good for all of us. It certainly applies to science and ministry—as well as art, business, or any vocation that pursues God and his kingdom here on earth.
Godly play also resonates beautifully with Hefner’s notion of created co-creators. It considers our agency and creativity rooted in a child’s playful wonder. It places God and his story firmly in the center—we are God’s children, created to work with God to help bring the Kingdom into being.
It happens when we do ministry. It happens when we create art. And it happens when we play with mathematics, trying to make sense of what we see in our telescopes, microscopes, or fMRI machines. We have this capacity to create. The challenge for us all is to always use that creativity in a godly way.